Thursday, April 6, 2017

Community in Beaver gathers to discuss Islam, eat hummus and ask questions

By Kirstin Kennedy 
Beaver County Times
April 6, 2017 -  BEAVER -- Over bowls filled full with hummus from Salem Halal Market in the Strip District, thin slices of pita bread and sweet dates, Toni Ashfaq explained many specifics of her religion to a room full of people.
The Center Township resident, who hails from Wisconsin, was prepared to answer any question thrown her way about Islam, the religion she chose to follow as a student in Washington, D.C.

Most of the questions posed to her during the "Spread Hummus, Not Hate" event Wednesday evening at the Beaver Memorial Library where genuine. When do Muslims hold religious services? Why do men and women worship in separate sections of a mosque? Do your children ever feel threatened?

Not all of the questions were innocently posed, but that's why Ashfaq set out to engage with the community.

"There's a lot of misunderstandings out there about Islam, so we just want to clarify," Ashfaq said. She and friend Dr. Raniah Khairy, of Brighton Township, organized the event Wednesday, and will meet again Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the library.
"We want to tell people what we really believe so they understand that not all Muslims are what you see in the media, the negative aspect of, unfortunately, what some people are doing," Ashfaq said.

She has a unique perspective. Ashfaq converted to the faith from Catholicism. Sher later married a doctor from Pakistan, and together they have four children.

Khairy, an OB/GYN specialist at Heritage Valley Beaver hospital in Brighton Township, is from Egypt and immigrated to the United States in 2000. She is now a U.S. citizen.
"It's a way to get our community and our society together, especially with all of the madness that is happening in the media these days," Khairy said.

Julia Chaney, of Beaver Falls, is a friend of both Ashfaq and Khairy and helped to organize the event, which drew more than 50 people.

Chaney, who is a Christian, said Ashfaq has always been open to discussing the Islamic religion.

"She always encourages me to ask questions, not to worry about anything being awkward or not (to) a question I'm allowed to ask," Chaney said. "We've had some wonderful conversations."

Ashfaq has taken Chaney to her mosque "in a spirit of peace and understanding for us to enter and just see what's going on. The people are beautiful and loving and welcoming," Chaney said.

Before the predominately Christian audience, Ashfaq explained her mission was to discuss Islam and clear up misconceptions. "We are here for education purposes, to clarify, we are not here to make anybody believe what we believe," she said.

According to Ashfaq, Islam is one of the Abrahamic religions, like Christianity and Judaism. "We all view the prophet Abraham as a father figure in our faiths," she said.

The Quran, the holy book of the Islamic faith, refers to "Jews, Christians and Muslims, all three, as people of the book. We are lumped into one category, we have to respect each other, we all have a lot in common," Ashfaq said.

The word Islam means submission to god, and the Muslim is the one who submits to god.
There are five pillars of Islam: The first is faith and the second is prayer. Practicing Muslims pray five times per day. Toni said this is "stopping your day to connect to the divine." The third pillar is charity, which means giving a portion of their wealth to those in need, and the fourth is fasting. Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, only eating and drinking before the sun comes up and after the sun goes down. The final pillar is pilgrimage.

The main difference between Christianity and Islam, Ashfaq said, is that Muslims view Jesus Christ as a prophet, not as divine.

There are many obvious cultural differences between Christians, Jews and Muslims in America. Muslims practice their day of worship on Fridays, Christians celebrate on Sundays and Jewish people recognize the Sabbath on Saturday. Practicing Muslims do not eat pork, Jews follow a kosher diet, many Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent.
However, the way Muslim people are viewed by Americans in other countries causes some misconceptions.

"It's really important to distinguish between religion and culture," Ashfaq said.
For example, people are sometimes shocked to see Ashfaq drive, she said. That’s likely because women in one Muslim-majority nation are legally forbidden from driving.
"Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. Why? I have no idea," Ashfaq said. "It has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. It's a misogynistic culture, what can I say?"
Some people also have the impression Muslim women and girls are kept out of schools, forbidden from learning by their religion. Ashfaq said that's not true.

"The prophet Mohmmad emphasized seeking knowledge for both men and women," She said. "He did not distinguish between the two."

It is forbidden by the faith to force a woman into marriage, though it does happen, she said. "I don't think this is exclusive to Islam. I think if you go to many different places in the world you will see stuff like that happening."

Divorce is also allowed in Islam, though it's not favored. "It's understood that sometimes it's necessary," Ashfaq said. Additionally, women don't have to take their husband's name. They can, but there is no requirement in the faith.

Both Muslim men and women are encouraged by their faith to adopt a modest dress. For example, many Muslim women wear a Hijab, which is a scarf which covers the head.
"Absolutely not all Muslim women choose to wear (the Hijab)," Ashfaq said.
"Head covering really is not something new," she said. "It's not a new concept in the Abrahamic religions. Nuns cover their heads, Amish women cover their heads, Jewish women cover their heads."

Only two countries have laws that require women to cover their heads: Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Women who wear the hijab "do it by choice. We're not forced by our husbands," Ashfaq said.

"It is an act of devotion," she said. "It's the same way a Christian opts to wear a cross around the neck. Why? Because you have pride in your faith and you want to be recognized for your faith. It's the same thing."

She said she has never met a woman who was forced to cover her head.

"Women's lib is not about how much skin you show," Ashfaq said. "Women's lib is about being educated, it's about equal rights, it's about equal pay -- which we still don't even have in this country -- it's about a woman choosing the way that she wants to dress. It's about respect."

Chloe Jane Bailey, of New Brighton, attended the event with her mother.

"I learned a lot of new words that I didn't know before," she said. "I learned that there's a lot of misconceptions that other people at this gathering had and, hopefully, they were cleared up."

Khairy also spoke to the crowd and addressed some of the topics of the Muslim faith which people tend to associate with terrorism.

"The concept of Jihad has been hijacked over the years by many political and religious groups to justify various forms of violence." Many, she said, have influenced others to incite violence by making it seem like the religion supported it.

Both women told the audience they hope the decisions of extremists won't impact their views of all Muslims, for which there are more than one billion across the world.
Bailey, a student, said she has always been "very open hearted. I don't really have any judgements on anyone specifically. I did get slightly irritated when there was unrest in the gathering."

The event helped her learn and feel competent discussing the Islamic faith, even with people who may have misconceptions.

"If there does become a discussion about Islam issues, I can give some information now, which is really nice because before I just had nothing to say," she said.

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